The New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts announced Wednesday that it will start to resume jury trials in September, with social distancing among jurors, lawyers, defendants, witnesses, and judges.
Potential jurors will first be selected by a virtual question-and-answer process, which will continue in person for individualized questioning in a courtroom when the jury pool is smaller, officials said during a Zoom news conference.
Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the New Jersey courts, said jury trials in criminal cases will start in three court districts in the state: those for Bergen County, Atlantic and Cape May Counties, and Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties. He did not provide a time frame for other counties but said they should start “relatively quickly” afterward.
After the coronavirus pandemic shut down courts in mid-March, New Jersey began hosting virtual sessions for detention, plea, and sentencing hearings in criminal cases, but suspended jury trials and grand jury proceedings. In May, the courts began a pilot program of virtual grand juries in two counties, Mercer and Bergen. That has been met by criticism from defense attorneys and prosecutors.
Given the 4,700 people sitting in county jails awaiting criminal trials, and the need for resolution of criminal and civil cases, “we have to start jury trials,” Grant said. He said the judiciary is willing to work with defense attorneys to address concerns they have.
Summonses will be mailed this month and in August to potential jurors in those first counties. Court staff will provide computer technology, including broadband service, to potential jurors who need it for the initial selection process, Grant said.
During trials, jurors will wear face masks and will sit six feet apart, likely in the courtroom gallery, officials said.
In counties without any large courtrooms, trial proceedings might be broadcast into a second courtroom so everyone is viewing the trial in real time, but from two different locations, said Jessica Lewis Kelly, special assistant to Grant.
Defendants and defense attorneys will sit further apart than usual, yet still be able to communicate with each other through various options, such as having partial acrylic glass dividers that would enable them to sit closer than six feet apart, by wearing earbuds so they can speak confidentially, or by writing on notepads, officials said.